Tuesday, July 17, 2012


How remiss I have been!  Why should anyone bother reading my blog if I’m not going to write it?  But I’ve been very busy, and at last have something to write about.  I’ve been working as dramaturg on two – count them, two – plays over the past month:  the Green Theater Collective’s production of The Tempest and Shakespeare@Hitfest’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

GTC is a tiny group dedicated to performing Shakespeare in minimalist fashion with as smalll an ecological footprint as possible .   Only six actors (here are two of them)

performing in an orchard, without a stage, lighting, or costumes, doubling and tripling roles, cutting the play to 90 minutes.  Their director is the incredibly talented Sarah Hankins, and it was a privilege to sit wih her and the cast and discuss the play, contributing whatever I could.  Its run is only six shows, in two venues, and this is the only aspect of the project I wish were different.  They’re like an itinerant bunch acting company in the 16th century, putting on plays for whoever will watch, solving production problems on the spot, improvising when they have to, and this is, for me, echt Shakespeare – the real thing.

By contrast, Sh@hitfest's Midsummer is a full-dress, 17-actor juggernaut which will run for most of August in Bridgehampton, staged in the athletic fields behind the high school.  I’ve worked with the director, Josh Perl, several times, but only when he was acting (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, all at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton); this is a whole new relationship.  A dramaturg has variously been defined as "the director’s bitch" and "a powerlesss smart person," and in this case, it’s more the latter; Josh and I often disagree on what the text says or means, or whether the actors should make that their primary focus, and so far my batting average is fairly low.  Sarah Hankins revered me and hung on my every word. I know Josh really likes me and appreciates me but he’s more about staging than about academics.  But the play is taking shape; there’s a lot of talent in the cast.  Here are some rehearsal pix:

Josh Perl expounding to the cast

The dramaturg keeping an eye on things

One pleasant surprise is that one of my former NYU students, and a prize student at that, Kea Trevett, is not only playing Helena, probably the largest and certainly the funniest role in the play, but is living with me and Nancy for the summer. 

She keeps thanking us for our hospitality, but having her around is pure pleasure.  She takes up next to no space (in any dimension) – deals with her own needs (she’s a vegetarian), leaves the kitchen spotless.  My favorite part of the day is when she and I get home from rehearsals and have a nightcap with Nancy, and we do a debriefing.  She's so smart and funny!   Too bad she's as ugly as a bear.  (Well, that's how Helena describes herself in the play, anyway.)

Nancy and I have adopted her as a second daughter, whether she likes it or not, and it will be lonely out here when she leaves, though three weeks later the real thing -- Daughter #1 + family arrive -- for an extended stay.

Opening night is August 2nd.  If anyone reading this would like to see the play, we’ll be there.  Details at http://mndhitfest.blogspot.com/.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


By chance, I came across an amazing video clip on YouTube this morning,* and it brought back a vivid first-hand memory, dating back to 1986, to which my fervent response was, and is: Better Nancy Reagan than me.

 That was actually my second thought as I watched the First Lady's chair tip backward off the dais in the East Room, depositing her in the flowerpots. My first thought was that something incomparably more awful had happened. After all, the President was there as well, delivering some graceful concluding remarks to the two hundred of us privileged to hear Vladimir Horowitz's White House recital; his presence, along with the Secret Service, the Marine Guards, the press, inevitably lends a kind of supercharge to the aura of any room he inhabits. So that sudden flurry, the chair toppling, the involuntary gasp from the crowd, the people rushing forward all conjured up a sense of waking nightmare, even fifteen years before 9/11: can something awful be happening? Here? Now?

But the next instant, Mrs. Reagan had bounced up unhurt, and she and the President were quipping away as if they'd rehearsed the whole thing. "Honey, I told you, to do it only if I'm not getting any laughs," he said, and got a big laugh. And smiling, unflustered, unwrinkled, not breathing hard, not flushed, without a stammer, Nancy tossed off a bon mot of her own -- "I guess I livened things up" -- and resumed her seat (her chair having been moved, in the interim, a good two feet from the treacherous edge of the platform). Horowitz locked his left arm around her waist and kept it there until the President had finished his speech, and then, smiling and chatting, the Reagans and the Horowitzes trooped nonchalantly out of the room, leaving the rest of us to buzz.

 "I saw it coming," said my wife. "She had on a tight skirt, and she was tugging it down, and the chair was inching backwards at every tug." And that became the Official Version, as reported by The Washington Post and The New York Times the next day. But everyone else had his or her own version, some little detail that non one else had noticed, some explanation, some point of view. It was like Rashomon; no one of us could quite take in the totality of the event we'd just witnessed. It was a leveling experience, though; it restored the democratic balance between the celebrity musicians and politicians, who'd never seen anything like it in all their visits to the White House, and the nobodies (like us) who had lucked into an invitation and were there for the first time. Now, everybody had something to talk about, and if you had had a better sight line than a symphony conductor or a newsweekly publisher, he wanted to know what your angle was.

 Nancy (Horwich) and I were there because fate had kindly arranged, forty years earlier, that my family and the Horowitzes should become friends. We've had the good fortune to hear him play many times -- once, several years ago, in Washington, when we came down the morning of the recital and went home as soon as it was over. Could anything could be more special than listening to the greatest living pianist? What would those musicophiles (mostly Russians) who froze all night waiting for a ticket, whose tears streamed down their faces as he played, answer? But such is the human capacity to become inured to blessings that this time, it was the Presidential overtones that set our hearts to beating a little faster.

 In some ways, we felt very privileged: just telling the cab driver, "The White House, please -- Visitors' entrance," gave me a charge, though as it turned out, he couldn't find the Visitors' entrance, having been misdirected by a D.C. cop, and we had to walk a quarter of a mile from where we were let off. Next time we'll get a limo, we told each other. But sweeping past the crowds of tourists toward the portico, the heart-stopping moment when the guard holding the Guest List couldn't seem to find our names, showing the requisite identification (our social security numbers having been provided weeks before), all reminded us that this was a special day, a time to soak up the memories and impressions for our daughter and our friends in New York.

Going through White House security (at least in those days) was just a politer version of going through airport security these days. The identification, the metal detector, the handbag search reminded us that this wasn't a routine social or cultural occasion in any way. If I had a sense of being a witness to history on a very small scale, I had a complementary sense that my role was to remain invisible, on my best behavior, while history unfolded. One doesn't go wandering around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, thumbing through books and opening closet doors; if you have to the go the bathroom, a Marine major escorts you. Remember being an adolescent, worrying about developing a pimple before the dance, about buying the wrong corsage, or saying the wrong thing, or not being able to say anything at all? My wife was nervous too; an hour before, in the hotel room, trying on and discarding innumerable pairs of pantyhose, she was worried she'd faint if she didn't eat something. Not since my wedding, when I was sure that during the ceremony my knees would lock, pitching me forward onto the rabbi's feet, have I fretted so about keeping countenance. What if I started coughing while Horowitz were playing? Belched? Sneezed on George Schultz’s tie? None of these things was likely, but I could imagine it, everyone slowly turning around and looking at me with an expression of incredulity on their faces.

 That was just the expression on the face of the Leader of the Free World when his wife did her back flip into the geraniums. The kind of thing that would surely mortify you if it ever really happened actually did happen -- in the middle of the President's speech -- and to the President's wife! But that, of course, made all the difference. If I'd fallen off my chair, I doubt whether the Chief Executive and I would have shrugged the incident off together with a little exchange of impromptu humor. Nancy Reagan belonged up there; she was in her own home, surrounded by her own guests (though I imagine she'd not met a third of them), and her aplomb undoubtedly stemmed, in part, from her sense of security: if I want to steal the stage from my husband by taking a pratfall while he maunders on, by God, I'll do it! And of course, all those years of social training, of discipline, of learning how to carry off difficult moments with tact, diplomacy, just the right gesture or remark -- they had prepared her superbly for a really juicy example of what the Reader's Digest would probably have called My Most Embarrassing Moment. If it had been me, I'd never have appeared in public again; five minutes later, at the reception, she was laughing about it as if she actually found it funny! I loved her at that moment. By a process of Darwinian selection, the one person in the room who could survive accident, or practical joke, or trick of fate, and actually triumph over it, was the person it happened to. Confirmed atheist though I am, I thought, there is a God. Better -- much, much better -- Mrs. Reagan than me.

 *Check out the video yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bA8rb3yka4

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


All teachers prize and collect them, and share them avidly with colleagues and . . . friends, but only discerning friends. One of the defining features of this form of humor is that the blooper is not readily accessible to the public at large; bloopers tend to be snobbish inside jokes, depending for at least part of their effect on self-congratulation: they’re funnier if you know what the student was trying to say or should have been saying. At the least, inside knowledge of literary texts is the sauce that brings out the flavor of the bloop.

Consider this sentence, written only last week by a student in my Shakespeare Colloquium: “One of the most important moments in the play comes in Act 5, when the Prince exclaims, ‘This is I, Hamlet the Great Dane!’” Everyone knows that can’t be what the Prince actually exclaims, but if you know the original line, you can see how the process of authorial recollection got thrown off the track. The line is “This is I, Hamlet the Dane,” meaning the de facto king of Denmark and the personfication of the national zeitgeist. Hamlet is a Dane, and a Great one at that, it’s just that in this one case, the adjective and the noun collide in a priceless way.

Another of my favorites, from a Survey of Western Drama course at Brooklyn College some years back, was, “Oedipus fell through his tragic floor.” Unless one has a cursory acquaintance with the Aristotelian concept of hamartia, (mis)translated as “tragic flaw,” this makes little sense but does conjure up a graphic image. But what makes it delicious is that, if you've ever heard Brooklynese, you know that when I said the word “flaw” in class, this kid heard the more homely and common “floor.” What did he think I meant? That the stage at the Festival of Dionysus in 5th-century B.C.E. Athens was honeycombed with devices like the one pictured above, which gave way unexpectedly at the pressure of a heroic foot?

The breakdown of oral communication in the classroom -- and outside it -- is notoriously responsible for the generation of nonsense, which usually comes to light only when the lapse is preserved in writing. One of my freshmen once described himself and his girlfriend as “shits that pass in the night.” Floating human waste caught in a cross-current during the hours of darkness? Or pure nonsense, like “Gladly the cross-eyed bear.”

A more predictable confusion occurred when yet another Brooklyn student wrote, “I saw the chipmunk emerge from his burro, look around, and disappear.” Circling the word “burro,” with a sense of misgiving but unable to help myself, I wrote in the margin, “You don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground.” The writer immediately complained to my department chair that I had verbally abused him. The bureaucrat thought it was pretty funny, but patiently explained to him what I had meant. The student was not mollified.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Many baseball fans I know would rather watch games on TV, especially now that DVR makes it possible to pre-record the contest and fast-forward through commercials, pitching changes, conferences on the mound, mid-game interviews, minor celebrity sightings and the like.

And I confess that this is my usual modus operandi, especially in April, when I often have to get through televised Knicks games as well. I can, if I set my mind to it, knock off both a baseball and a basketball game in under three hours, if I hew ruthlessly to the principle that everything extraneous to the play itself -- not only Cialis ads but also everything that smacks of human interest and sports rumination -- must be ruthlessly expunged.

But the other night, Nancy and I were at Yankee Stadium to see the Bombers come from behind and thwack the Twins 8-3. And yes, there were things we sacrificed for the en plein air experience: the dubious benefit of announcer commentary and explanation, for one.

But here’s what we gained:

First, a perfect night. When I was teaching at Brooklyn College, a freshman handed in a paper that began, “It was a day such as poets write of: not too hot, not too cold.” It’s become a family joke: “It was a burger such as poets write of: not too rare, not too well-done.” But in the case of last Tuesday evening, Alexander Pope or some other champion of the moderate and picuresque might have been inspired to comment in verse on the clemency of the climate.

Second, a streaker – a nice retro touch, and one that TV viewers always miss because of YES Network's policy not to encourage such behavior. Granted that the guy was wearing trousers, which means he had no balls (that we could see), but he put on a nice, if brief, display of broken-field running before being brought down at second base by a fat old cop with surprising speed.

Third, for me, a nice sausage on a bun with peppers (admittedly, it was preceded by two $8 hot dogs, purchased at different stands, of such inferior quality that I discarded each after one bite) and, for Nancy, her favorite slum-food: a corn dog.

Fourth, the fans, including the two cuties pictured above who repeatedly photographed themselves against the backdrop of the field, but also, and more so, the lovely group of smart, knowlegeable, nerdy Jewish high-school kids we found ourselves sitting amidst. The boy on my right respectfully quizzed me on my vast experience as a sports fan: had I ever seen Mantle and how good would he have been if he’d stayed healthy? (The best ever.) Who was my favorite all-time Yankee pitcher? (Whitey Ford.) Did I prefer the new Stadium to the Old? (In some ways.) And he produced a fascinating hypothesis: during the sixth inning, the Yankees had the bases loaded: Gardiner on first, Granderson on second, Nunez on third. Wasn’t it possible, my young friend asked, that never in the annals of the game had three runners of equal or superior speed been on base at the same time? What team, in my long memory, might have produced their equal? And I couldn’t think of one; perhaps we were watching an arcane quantum of baseball history, live and in person. (To provide a nice sense of closure, Swisher drove them all in with a ringing double to right.) When we left, the kid respectfully shook my hand and told me what a pleasure it had been to talk with me. Such a nice bright boy, such a high probability that someday he’ll be the next Grantland Rice or serve as Commissioner of Baseball.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


In January, I returned from a week’s trip to Cuba and blogged about it – chiefly its architecture, which constituted a rich and detailed record of the island’s history over the past hundred years. The opulent, Europeanized villas; the splended Catholic churches; the public squares; the narrow warren of alleyways of Old Havana all gave way, starting in 1959, under the avalanche of Communism. The villas were given to the People, who couldn’t take care of them, and most of them crumbled into splendid, decaying old piles. The churches have slowly been colonized by Senterria, the local form of Yoruba folk religion. The Castro regime built blocks of depressing Soviet-style flats and monumental, faceless public buildings. But Old Havana remains what it was, and forms the core of a lively, West-friendly fun-loving culture that refuses to die.

Two weeks ago, I got back from a visit to a country so different from Cuba as to represent its diametrical opposite: Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the United Arab Emirates. And again, architecture has a story to tell. Abu Dhabi, unlike Cuba, has virtually no history; fifty years ago it was desert. And the indigenous culture, if it can be called that, is Bedouin, and therefore, by definition, fleeting and insubstantial, for the Bedouins were rootless wanderers.

Where Cuba is a very poor country, Abu Dhabi, which owes its existence to its enormous oil reserves, is rolling in wealth. A (somewhat oversimplified) profile of an Emirati is someone who has little or no education (why bother, when there’s no vocational motive?), doesn’t work (ditto), is waited upon by servants who have immigrated from other countries (and who live outside the city in what are called – I kid you not – labor camps). The typical family car is a Porsche Cayenne.

And the architecture? Monumentality knows no bounds in Abu Dhabi (it’s even more striking in neighboring Dubai). Ego-driven oil-rich sheikhs have, with no master plan or guiding purpose, created a city of enormous glass towers – apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels – quite indifferent to the fact that their occupancy rate is ridiculously low. There is no dominant style, unless whimsical fancy may be said to be a governing esthetic. Consider, for example, the towers pictured below, which are fairly typical:

Bizarre? Tasteless? Look at the decor of the Grand Mosque. The exterior is impressive enough. . . .

But the interior is tacky; it looks as if it had been furnished by a a policeman's wife in Nassau County. Who came up with this chandelier?

Here's the opposite number of that chandelier in the extraordinarily beautiful Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca:

The physical setting of Abu Dhabi -- on the Gulf of Arabia, facing west toward Iran -- is stunning. But the Emiratis don't mix with tourists or expats; theirs is a closed community, but an untethered one: not truly Arab but not Western either. They've taken the worst of our culture, its obsession with material goods, and broken away from the best of Arab culture, its subtlety, intellectual accomplishments, and style. As of now, there's no "there" there.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I wanted to go to Cuba for the same reason that many Americans go there: we all heard/saw Buena Vista Social Club and were blown away by the music. But when we got there, during the last week of December, though there was music aplenty (some wonderful, most OK), the way that Havana imposed its presence on us was through its architecture.

I'm not qualified to write about recent Cuban political history -- or architecture, for that matter. But the enormous variety of styles, and the variation in the condition of the diverse buildings and neighborhoods, was so clearly evident that I can't resist.

Old-style buildings in Havana and its environs date back to the days when it was a Spanish colony, and even after it became an independent republic in the 19th century, Cubans continued to build in the Spanish mode, which is exemplified by the opulence and elegance of those few structures that have been restored and/or preserved, like the Hotel Sevilla --

-- and this monumental government edifice --

But most of Havana's streets -- particularly in Old Havana, the "autentico" neighborhood that draws tourists -- looks like this

Though some look like this:

It's clear from your first stroll that while most citizens are fighting the good fight against erosion and decay, it's not always winnable. In another half-century, if the regime doesn't change, and the island stays closed to U.S. trade and tourism, might not the whole city look like this?

What happened was that after the upper class left in a hurry in 1959, with only those assets they could carry, Castro gave their houses to the people -- who couldn't afford to keep them up. What the New Regime itself built has an inevitable Russian tinge to it: monumentally dull and highly politicized buildings:

So, in a way, Havana's architecture resembles its cars: there are stunning blasts from the past (the favorites seem to be Chevy Bel-Airs from 1955 to 57, like this one, which would cost about $70,000)

with a few brand-new Audis and Beamers mixed into a general population of clapped-out Ladas (the Soviet people's car, with none of the charm or engineering of the VW Beetle).

So: here is a city of two million people, part of it looking like Dresden after the fire-bombing, part of it a nondescript commercial and government metropolis, and part of it heartbreakingly beautiful. I leave you with an image of how some Cubans lived before Fidel & Co. --

and a more accurate picture of a city that's in which even the most modest attempts at beautification have to be seen through chain-link fences: